Arsenal 0 – 0 Man United: We’ve missed the party

I had a more emotional reaction to this game than normal. The reason why is simple: I hate United. I loathe them. Their demise this season has made me cackle like the most perfectly played out slapstick comedy.

And I so wanted us to be in on it. I wanted us to join the party, along with West Brom, Newcastle, Sunderland, and all those other teams. When we went to Old Trafford, I had visions of a cathartic victory. I wanted us to batter them, get a bit drunk, piss on the corner flag, and dance disgracefully on the grave of Fergie’s dugout. I thought we’d be the munchkins in Oz, the Ewoks on Endor, gleefully celebrating the destruction of a once feared nemesis.

But we weren’t. We were feeble.

This time, surely, it had to be different. Yes, we went in to the match on the back of a painful defeat to Liverpool, but United come in to it off the back of a truly agonising season. Surely, this time, we ought to have had the psychological upper hand.

It wasn’t to be. We blew it.

We weren’t dominated by United, but nor did we shed our insecurities. We had an opportunity to put them to the sword, but we looked more worried about dropping our shield. We’re as scared of Fergie’s ghost as David Moyes is.

There was plenty wrong with the performance, but it’s clear the main problems are in attack. Without Theo Walcott, Olivier Giroud’s weakness come in to sharp focus. Arsenal lack pace on the counter and someone who can run in behind the defence. With the pair in tandem, you get a bit of everything. Giroud in isolation is a one-dimensional threat.

Mesut Ozil had one of his finest games in an Arsenal shirt, but his dribbles forward often ended in frustration as he looked up to survey his options. No-one in this XI had the speed required to sprint in to the space Ozil’s probing passes seek out. When Ozil looks up, you can almost feel him forlornly casting his eyes across the horizon in search of Cristiano Ronaldo.

It’s clear the jig’s up for Lukas Podolski, too. In a game in which Arsenal’s attacking was limp and lifeless, Podolski went unused. Wenger’s vote of confidence could not have been more emphatically delivered.

I do feel this was a game we had to win. Not mathematically. Numbers-wise, the title is still very much on. No: I thought we had to win it to escape our hang-ups, to instil the team with confidence, and to make a statement to our rivals.

After the game, Arsene suggested that the team was inhibited by the mauling at Anfield. Perhaps so. “We are only human”, he offered. My concern is that champions often have the sheen of the superhuman. One point from the two games against Liverpool and United does not seem enough for a title-winning team.

There are certain similarities with the sequence of games where we lost to City and then drew at home to Chelsea. Arsenal followed that up with a further seven games unbeaten in the league. Given that our next seven games encompass games with Tottenham, City, Chelsea and Everton, I consider it unlikely we’ll repeat that feat.

It’s not all doom and gloom. The table makes it clear: we’re still in the race. I’m not going to prematurely mourn the title. However, I’m inconsolably sad that Arsenal will go through the 2013/14 season having failed to beat the worst United team in decades. We’ve missed the party.

Arsenal 2 – 0 Crystal Palace: Ox in the box sees off Pulis

Arsenal were methodical rather than meek…
At half-time I saw a number of people on my Twitter timeline criticising Arsenal for an apparent lack of attacking ambition. On closer inspection, it transpired most of these people were neutrals.

Their disappointment was presumably based on ill-informed expectations. Tuning in to televised coverage of the game, they probably anticipated Arsenal producing an exhibition of attacking excellence. We retain a reputation for extravagant football, just as we retain a reputation as bottlers. This season, it could be argued that both are unjustified. The fans who watch regularly will recognise that this team is evolving a different character: one far steelier, and devastatingly efficient.

Arsene Wenger remarked recently that while Mesut Ozil’s style is not always the most eye-catching, he wears opponents down due to the sheer consistency of his passing. The same analysis could be applied to the team as a whole.

Crystal Palace under Tony Pulis are a highly-organised unit. They are notoriously difficult to break down. Arsenal showed great patience to break down their opponent. It’s also worth pointing out that we put one more goal past them than the vaunted Manchester City.

I couldn’t care less if neutrals are entertained. We’re winning. That’s all I’m bothered about.

Ox t-shirts on sale now

Oxlade-Chamberlain in midfield reminds of Ross Barkley…

He has the same entrancing combination of power and technique. As his second goal demonstrates, he is able to burst past defenders at will, and has the shooting power to finish things off too.

Comparisons with Theo Walcott have always been somewhat lazy. Chamberlain doesn’t share Walcott’s blistering pace or his probing movement off the ball. However, he does possess an impressive range of passing and a genuinely creative streak. As Wenger has long stressed, the middle is his natural home.

Like Barkley, Ox needs to improve his stamina and defensive play if he’s to become a true box-to-box midfielder. Given time, he’ll do it. In Aaron Ramsey’s continued absence, Oxlade-Chamberlain is arguably the closest replicant of the Welshman’s all-action style.

The defence deserve enormous credit…

Arsenal have conceded one goal in their last 11 matches at the Emirates Stadium. It’s stunning stuff. Yesterday, Mertesacker and Koscielny were simply imperious. At one point they could even afford to play a spot of head tennis in their own half.

It’d be remiss not to mention the Kallstrom deal…
This is my first opportunity to talk about it on the blog, and I have to say it continues to puzzle me. Seemingly the only reason we were after a midfielder was to cope with the short-term absence of Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini. However, we have signed a player who is not available for the period those two are set to miss.

Arsene has stressed that the club were not aware of Kallstrom’s injury until 5pm on Deadline Day. By then, it was “too late” to find an alternative. The choice, according to Le Boss, was to sign Kallstrom or no-one. In those circumstances, concluding the deal was probably the right option. However, should it have come to that? Could there not have been a back-up for Kallstrom?

Arsenal really needed a striker in this window, yet Arsene insisted there was no-one of the “super quality” required available. I’m not convinced we necessarily needed a midfielder, and yet he brought in one of dubious calibre who is injured.

It’s a funny one. But he’s proved me wrong before. I, like many, has my doubts about the acquisition of Mathieu Flamini. I’d love to be similarly wrong again.

Southampton 2 – 2 Arsenal: Arsenal guilty of cardinal sins against Saints

Southampton 2 – 2 Arsenal
Match report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

You can’t win ‘em all…

In the heat of a closely-fought title race, it’s easy to forget that you simply can’t win every game. In isolation, a draw at Southampton is not a bad result. However, I suspect the Arsenal fans’ disappointment with the outcome stems from a pre-emptive anxiety about the fixtures we face over the coming weeks. Although this was a tough tie, it’s relatively easy compared to the harrowing schedule that awaits.

There was plenty to admire about Southampton…
In the first half, they were excellent. I had sort of assumed they were something of a spent force this season. After a superb start they appeared to have burnt out. Perhaps the players were guilty of making the same assumption. Despite having had a day less to prepare for the game, they absolutely flew out the blocks. The Saints didn’t march in – they stormed in, and their way with out wives. Their superiority was perfectly captured by convincing manner in which Jay Rodriguez bullied Bacary Sagna throughout the 90 minutes – a rare sight indeed.

This was one of our worst performances this season…
Apart from a seven minute spell at the start of the second half, we were all over the place. The most worrying development was the return of a genuine sense of chaos in our play. On other occasions when we’ve dropped points this season, the machine has simply failed to function efficiently. Against Southampton, the machine went haywire. Nothing really seemed to work. Conceding a goal immediately after taking the lead is particularly concerning: that sort of sloppiness is unlike the Arsenal defence we’ve come to appreciate in 2013/14.

We missed a “box-to-box midfielder”…
The midfield looked horribly disjointed. Aaron Ramsey, Tomas Rosicky and Jack Wilshere were all out injured, so Arsene Wenger was forced to field Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini behind Mesut Ozil. The gap between the defensive midfielders and the playmaker was enormous, and Southampton were able to exploit the space between at will. With Ozil playing high up, close to Giroud, there was no obvious link between the midfield and the attack. It wasn’t pretty.

Ramsey’s injury set-back is a big blow…
It seems the Welshman is set to miss the next four to six weeks, having aggravated his thigh injury. Obviously his dynamism in the middle of the park will be a big miss, but the main reason I was so keen to have him back was his goal contribution. With Walcott out, I hoped Ramsey could take up the strain. Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud are both quietly racking up the goals, but with Arsene Wenger patently unwilling to use Lukas Podolski I wonder how many genuine goal threats our first XI offers. Mesut Ozil’s last goal certainly feels like a long time ago.

Transfers: Just when I thought I was out…
…Arsene has dragged me back in. Speaking to Sky Sports News after the game, he seemed relatively optimistic about the prospect of a new acquisition before Friday’s deadline. I can only think that the injury to Ramsey has forced his hand. For a few weeks now, he’s been saying that “unless we have another injury” we have no major need. That injury, unfortunately, has arrived. Time to push the Draxler button?

Further Reading: ESPN | Bleacher Report

Some thoughts on Coventry, Podolski and Draxler

Arsenal 4 – 0 Coventry

Match report | Highlights

This was our biggest win of the season…
…although the scoreline was arguably somewhat flattering. After romping in to a two-goal lead, Arsenal took their foot off the gas and instead applied the dreaded handbrake. On a side note, it’s vaguely amusing that a handbreak is something designed for security, but in Arsenal terminology has transmogrified in to something perilous.

Anyhow. Had Coventry’s Leon Clarke been in better form, the underdogs may even have grabbed a couple of goals. As it was, they failed to take their opportunities, and tired late on.

That’s what a midfield without Arteta & Flamini looks like…
Arsene fielded a very attack-minded central midfield of Jack Wilshere alongside Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Although both players impressed in possession, without the ball they struggled. In the second half, Coventry regularly isolated and outmanoeuvred our full-backs. The work that Arteta and particularly Flamini do in wide areas is often overlooked and utterly vital.

It’s hard to argue with Podolski’s numbers…
He now has more goals than starts in 2013/14. He’s comfortably the best finisher in the Arsenal squad. In the light of his brace, it’ll be fascinating to see whether or not he gets the nod to start against Southampton on Tuesday. He couldn’t really have done much more to demonstrate his ability against Coventry. If he doesn’t start, it suggests that nothing Podolski can produce on the pitch will alleviate Wenger’s patent unwillingness to field him from the start.

We were more German than ever….
When Gedion Zelalem came on for his first-team debut, Arsenal had five Germans on the pitch. On the same night, Bayern Munich played in the Bundesliga. They ended their game with just four.

Further reading: Globe-trotting Gedion Zelalem looks at home at Arsenal – ESPN

However, I don’t think Draxler is coming…
Sorry to disappoint, but I don’t see this deal happening in the January window. A lot of amateur body language experts have come out of the woodwork to analyse Arsene’s various smirks and batting eyelashes, but I don’t think there’s anything in there to suggest we’re on the verge of a swoop for the prodigiously-talented Draxler.

I think the player would very much like to come. A lot of the noise this week seems to have emanated from his camp. However, the more certain Arsenal are of the player’s commitment the less likely they are to play his steep release clause. Arsenal will do the deal when they can get it cheapest.

There’s another reason for my doubts. Earlier in January, the club were actively considering a bid for a wide player. That search was accelerated when Theo Walcott was ruled out for the rest of the season. However, since then, agents who had previously being tasked with identifying potential recruits are now being fed the same “we have 17 wingers” line that Wenger trotted out in his post-Coventry press conference. That is the new company line – inspired, one might imagine, by the swift development of Serge Gnabry.

“Ah”, you say, “but what if he sees Draxler as a striker?” Wenger may well have a long-term plan to develop Draxler in to a striker, but is the middle of a title challenge really the best time to embark upon that sort of experiment? As much as I’d like us to sign the player, I suspect not.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that the reason Wenger has privately called off the hunt for a wide attacker is that he’s already found the one he wants: Draxler. However, looking in to his eyes on Friday night, I didn’t sense the same anticipatory glee I saw prior to the Ozil signing.

I think Arsene would still like to sign a striker, ideally on loan. Whether or not that will be possible in what’s left of the window remains to be seen. It looks unlikely.

I’d like to be wrong. I’d love Wenger to go out and make a signing in this window. I have a horrible, nagging suspicion that if we don’t, we may be left wondering “what if” come May. We’re in a phenomenal position, and I can’t fathom why we’d choose to leave anything to chance.

The FA Cup Draw…
I’ve come to accept that any home draw is essentially a good draw. We’ve been handed three in succession, so can’t really complain. Manchester City facing off against Chelsea is also fantastic for our chances. The FA Cup certainly represents our most direct route to silverware this season. It’s tantalising to imagine that we are just two wins from Wembley, and four wins from a trophy. Admittedly, the draw does leave us with a pretty daunting schedule over the next two months. However, as a United-supporting friend said to me in the light of the draw: “Better to be scared than bored”.

Further reading: Why February Could Be Make or Break for Arsenal’s Season – Bleacher Report